American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Every once in a while, you sense you're watching actors being allowed to do what they hoped to do when they got into show biz. That would playing characters familiar to their experience, in a warm-hearted story, without exploitation and without a "message" as much as the right kind of feeling. Oh, they wanted to make blockbusters, too, and cavort with superheroes and be in great love scenes and get to drive fast and dodge bullets and plunge into deep drama and tear their hearts out and win Oscars. But those things are less rare than such a movie as Alfredo de Villa's "Nothing Like the Holidays."
Here is a story filmed almost entirely in a Chicago neighborhood, Humboldt Park, which has rich and poor, yuppies and welfare families, problems and solutions, all ages, all faiths, all races, all within several blocks of one another. In a nice-size house on a typical street live a Puerto Rican couple, Anna and Eduardo Rodriguez, who are not new to the neighborhood. In their home, for the first time in several years, all the members of their far-flung boricua family gather for Christmas.
The older son, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), is home from New York with his executive wife, Sarah (Debra Messing). A son (Freddy Rodriguez) is home from the war in Iraq. A daughter (Vanessa Ferlito) dreams of being a Hollywood star. There's a know-it-all cousin (Luis Guzman). An ex-girlfriend of the military man (Melonie Diaz). A family friend (Jay Hernandez) since the good old days. Spouses in general. A houseful. All presided over by Anna (Elizabeth Pena) and the somehow absentminded Eduardo (Alfred Molina).
Eduardo runs the family grocery store or bodega, an anchor of the neighborhood. He has long dreamed of a son taking it over, but this does not seem to be. Anna has long yearned for a grandchild, and regards Sarah as if hinting that a joyous announcement only would be polite. Anna and Eduardo are undergoing great unhappiness in their marriage; it's always a danger signal when someone leaves the room to take a cell call. But find out about that for yourself. The big issue that Eduardo and Anna share publicly is her desire to get rid of the sick old tree in the middle of the lawn, and his reluctance to commence this family duty, or much of any other, on Christmas Eve.